14 April 2018

‘The Expanse’ (SyFy, season 2)

The Expanse - season 2

The Eros settlement has been engulfed by the runaway protomolecule, claiming the lives of the hundred thousand colonists, with Holden and Miller barely escaping with a handful of locals. As the rest of the Solar System becomes aware of the situation, the crew of the Rocinante, together with Fred Johnson, track down the people behind the horrific experiment, but clash among themselves about how to best handle the situation. As they put in motion their wild plan to destroy the infected asteroid, the protomolecule starts displaying its more exotic powers and moves Eros out of orbit and into a collision course with Earth…

Unlike most of the online universe, I haven’t been exactly enthused with the show’s first season. So, I had no trouble waiting for the full season to be released on Netflix before starting to watch it, even if that was months later than the official launch. The second season was a notable improvement, but it does come with its share of issues, both old and new. The next season is set to start very soon, so I wanted to share some of my impressions, even if they are a bit fuzzy a couple of months later.

I found it odd how the season is composed of two rather distinct parts: the first five episodes wrap up the story of the first season and are in fact continuing the adaptation of Leviathan Wakes, the first novel in the Expanse cycle. The action is fast-paced and gripping, with many factions scrambling to contain the Eros crisis, in stark contrast to the slow-burning first season. I think it makes little sense to split this novel into one-and-a-half seasons; I would have enjoyed the first season a lot more if it included its proper ending. After the first part, we get an interlude showing Solomon Epstein inventing the improved drive that allows fast travel to the outer solar system, as told in the short story Drive – again an odd choice, as this kind of backstory should belong in the first season.

One of my issues with the previous season – that hasn’t changed unfortunately – was how they chose to depict movement in space, with characters walking around normally most of the time, and then having them tumbling and doing back flips through the air the next minute. It’s a jarring experience and also strains belief; even if you are firmly fastened to the floor, in zero-gravity arms would move differently, hair would float around etc. Better to just ignore this aspect if you don’t have the budget to emulate zero-g all the time.

The space battles are overall more realistic than in other space shows, respecting relativity-induced time-delays and using realistic weaponry. But I found one of the fight scenes, cool as it was, highly improbable: bullets from the automated defenses of a secret space station are penetrating the hull of the Rocinante, passing within centimeters of the bodies of the crew. At the end, despite the reported damage, none of them are injured, nor are any of the critical ship systems hit – yeah, how likely is that?! On the flip side, the crew wore space suits and vented the atmosphere before battle, that at least makes sense in the context.

Space Combat in The Expanse

The plot of the second half is quite a stretch in my opinion: a mysterious opponent attacks Mars troops on Ganymede, destroying the farming stations on the moon and sparking new tensions between Mars and Earth. It turns out (spoilers!) that the aggressor is a creature engineered using the protomolecule by our main villain Mr. Mao, the one who killed an entire asteroid for his experiments. This is where the show’s logic starts to falter badly: since Eros was quickly removed from his control, there was no time for Mr. Mao to collect data from his experiment, so how did he managed to manipulate the protomolecule so precisely to create a superhuman hybrid in a matter of months? Or otherwise, if he already had that capability, why did he seed Eros with the protomolecule in the first place, sacrificing his own daughter in the process? Maybe it’s better explained in the books, but in the TV series it feels like they are making stuff up as they go.

Overall though, the show is fun and watchable. I enjoyed the political scheming, the tension between the major powers confronted with the alien mystery and terrible menace of Eros. Despite their differences, Earth and Mars need to find a way to work together, but the peace talks are undermined both by their mutual distrust and by internal power struggles and machinations. Chrisjen Avasarala is constantly in the middle of the action, but sometimes feels outsmarted by her opponents – including the infamous Mr. Mao, which she agrees to meet later in the show at a secret location. The biggest issue for the future of the story is the protomolecule wildcard. As it’s currently set up, I get the impression it’s capable of anything, and it’s hard to build a satisfying story with an effective deus-ex-machina in every episode. We’ll have to see what wonders or terrors it will unleash during next season.

Nota mea: 3.5

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